Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Puzzle Design of Life is Strange

It seems odd to talk about Life is Strange in light of its puzzles, since it's so heavily-focused on telling a powerful story, but the puzzles contained in this game were built as part of a cohesive whole. When looking at a game, it's good to remember that every part of that game was put there with some sort of intention--so what was the intention behind the various puzzle sequences in this game? I want to look at a few different types of puzzles found in Life is Strange and explore just how they connect to its story, and what they attempt to achieve.

NOTE: this post will use example scenes from multiple episodes of Life is Strange in order to provide clear and specific examples for its points. I highly recommend that you play the game before reading this, but have avoided plot spoilers.

What Puzzles Do

In any game, puzzles promote engagement, and that's no different for Life is Strange. Unlike in puzzle games, though, the focus of this game isn't on "solving" anything, it's on progressing through the story and making choices. On the surface, puzzles seem like they'd get in the way of that. Aren't you supposed to be getting your players to the big choices, so that you can invest them in the story? Wouldn't putting puzzles in front of the player just distract from the main point of the game? It does make a good amount of sense. However, the closer you look at the puzzles in Life is Strange, the more you realize that they're something different--they're a glue that holds the game together.

For the sake of this blog post, a "puzzle" is a game activity where you have an objective and have to use the tools at your disposal to "solve" the situation, typically by performing specific tasks in a particular order. The puzzles in this game fall into three types that sometimes blend and overlap:
  • Object-based puzzles, where you find and use objects in the environment to accomplish goals
  • Dialogue puzzles, where you talk to people and use different dialogue choices to advance the plot or obtain information
  • Rewind puzzles, where you use the main character's time-rewinding power to achieve goals and take actions that would not normally be possible in the game

While each of these types of puzzles shares the common goal of drawing the player into the game, each one does that in a slightly different way.

Object Puzzles

These puzzles are a common staple in point-and-click adventure games, and tend to follow a simple formula: acquire objects within the environment, then use them on other parts of the environment. Essentially, it uses parts of the game world as keys which unlock doors, which you have to open in order to make progress. Life is Strange isn't nearly as challenging or complicated as adventure games can get, though; there's no way to "combine" objects in your inventory with one another, and the object puzzles in the game tend to be very linear, completed within a small selection of locations. This contrasts strongly with adventure games, where you often need to go back and forth between different locations in order to solve puzzles, and can often be trying to solve more than one puzzle at once. In fact, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the object puzzles from simple "fetch quests".

One of the typical object puzzles in Life is Strange is the point in Episode 3 where you're attempting to hack into David Madsen's computer via the time-honored trope of figuring out his password by finding clues nearby. You go around the room looking for objects that might hint at his computer's password. Some are very obvious, and naturally they're wrong. You have to specifically look inside his car, which is currently in the garage, to find the password--but it's not put in a place that you'll look for at first. That means you're probably going to interact with a few other things before you find the key object.

That's the real key behind Life is Strange's object puzzles: they're a way of getting you to interact with the world. Because each of the objects gives you a snippet of Max's impression when you choose to take the "Look" action with it, the game uses them as character development and worldbuilding simultaneously. They set the scene, tell you about the other characters in the game, and tell you about the protagonist's inner life at the same time--and that's why it's important that the puzzles encourage you to continuously explore it, giving you a nudge to get back into it.

What's also interesting is that these puzzles sometimes have more than one possible outcome. A later sequence in the same garage lets you try to figure out a combination lock that hides something...or you can just choose to find a nearby crowbar and break the lock. It's an interesting implicit decision--you can spend time and energy to achieve essentially the same result, but the path that you take is up to you. (This one's interesting, because the code was hidden in the previous episode of play--so it's a bit of an easter egg for players who were observant and had a good memory.)

Dialogue Puzzles

While interaction with the environment forms the bulk of Life is Strange's gameplay, the most significant moments come through dialogue. While object puzzles are a way to interact with the sandbox of the world, dialogue puzzles are more like a minefield. While Max is able to rewind after reaching a "bad end", you still have to tread carefully to ultimately succeed. The "dialogue puzzles" in this game remind me heavily of visual novels: you have several branching options to choose from, with different choices leading to other choices, and there's at least a "bad ending" and a "good ending", usually along with more neutral endings. What's really interesting is that visual novels also have a "rewind" mechanic of sorts: they support heavy use of save states, promoting a playstyle where you save at every key decision point so that you don't have to replay the entire game when you hit a bad ending.

The best example of a dialogue puzzle is the Episode 4 confrontation with the drug-dealing Frank at his trailer. There's an obvious "bad end" (you get attacked by his dog), several "neutral ends" (you get the information you wanted, but Frank gets threatened and shot, making him an enemy), and a "good end" (you manage to work with Frank to get the information you need, and nobody gets hurt). Several decisions swing you towards one end or another, and you're even able to leverage a bit of information you may or may not have picked up from a prior episode, depending on your choices. There's also choices that open up if, for example, you've reached a "bad end", since Max is now forewarned about things that can happen. You're able to rewind back through the conversation when you reach one end, and you can theoretically brute-force it for the best possible end, but if you don't want to tediously do-over, you'll need to hone your sense of empathy instead, understanding which responses are likely to end poorly.

Developing that empathy is the most important aspect of dialogue puzzles: they encourage you to think about the ramifications of certain dialogue options, and to get into the head of the character you're talking with. Being able to safely explore different options (since you can always rewind) also gives you an outlet to explore different facets of characters, and to see what happens when you push different buttons. It builds the impression that these characters are people, which is essential for any story. They become believable and more real as you interact with them in dialogue, and that's what dialogue puzzles push you to do.

Since these puzzles also often have more than one possible outcome, they can give you the same decision point as object-based puzzles, but the stakes are somewhat different. Here, the decision is whether you're going to rewind, spending time and effort to explore more conversation options. That, in turn, lets you choose to connect more directly with characters, learning more about them, or continue on, leaving the conversation largely unexplored. The decision space gives you the opportunity to engage with characters out of your own free will, which is highly important.

Time-Rewind Puzzles

As you might expect, the signature puzzles in Life is Strange revolve around Max's time-rewinding power. Early in the game, you're given very specific rules: when Max rewinds, it reverses everything around her, but doesn't change anything about her (including items she's acquired or her position in the world). These rules allow the developers to build some clever (although simple) puzzles surrounding her power. You're able to use time-rewinding to do things that you wouldn't be capable of doing normally, and each puzzle is carefully designed so that it emphasizes the limits of your power while also giving you a moment of epiphany. Time-rewind puzzles are always necessary in order to progress the story, and you're unable to accomplish them without using your rewind. They also incorporate elements of the prior two puzzles. Dialogue and objects are the two main ways you interact with the world, and each one has a unique interaction with time-rewinding: when you rewind after learning certain things, you can incorporate them into your conversation as new options, and when you rewind after picking up an item, you retain the item in your inventory.

I'm loath to give away the solutions to later puzzles (the Episode 4 puzzle in the barn was a personal favorite), but an early time-rewind puzzle in Episode 1 requires Max to make her way up a hill towards a lighthouse--while a storm is throwing debris in her path. The epiphany you stumble into is that when you rewind, you can make progress through an area before the debris falls down and blocks your way forward. Rewind and walk through, and then when it comes crashing down, you're on the other side, able to progress forward. It's the first big showcase of your power--you're not just doing the classic "rewind time and avert the outcome you just saw", you're making lateral use of the power.

If this were a puzzle game, you'd be presented with numerous opportunities to use time-rewinding in massively weird and creative ways. You'd also be playing Braid. In Life is Strange, the puzzles are considerably simpler--they're not meant to challenge you, just to get you thinking about the implications of your power. They're a form of immersion, helping you to connect with the main character and getting you to think about the world from the perspective of someone with power over it. They also let you indulge a power fantasy in the game, which proves to be satisfying. You start to feel just how having that much power can change someone, and this begins to flow into the narrative themes that the game wants to emphasize.

There's also one way to handle these puzzles, and only one way. You're supposed to find the intentional path--and this highlights the fact that they're setpieces, cinematic scenes that grant you limited power. Allowing more latitude to players might have promoted the amount of freedom they felt, especially in light of the choice allowed in other areas. The restriction very tightly focuses these puzzles, though. You're pointed towards thinking of time-rewinding in very particular ways, and each puzzle teaches you a little bit about what it's like to have this power. Also interestingly, the game starts introducing time-rewind puzzles that include false choices: options that don't work. This helps to answer questions like "why didn't Max just rewind and do X?" in a satisfying way. More pragmatically, trying to account for multiple branching ways to solve a time-rewind puzzle was probably significantly more development work than the company was able to commit to.

What Do Puzzles Accomplish?

There's a common thread running through these puzzles: they draw you into the world. Each type of puzzle covers a different aspect of how Max interacts with the world around her--she affects objects, talks with people, and rewinds time. Puzzles require focus in the game, so they filter your understanding of the world into those three "buckets". Anything that you spend time on will draw your attention more strongly, and all of these puzzles reflect back onto the world in some way, whether you're exploring it, understanding its inhabitants, or exerting your power over it. The intent of the designers is to give you something to do so that you're engaging the world. When you engage it, you become attached to it. When you become attached to it, your emotional investment kicks in when things happen to that world. It's fundamentally why you start caring about the game in a unique way. The writing can make you care about the characters, but it's these game mechanics that make you care about the world you've entered.

In Life is Strange, some of this works better than other bits. The object puzzles in particular can feel a bit kludged-in, and it's a fair complaint that some of the later episodes have scenes that devolve into "fetch quests", where you have to go somewhere, get an item, and come back. The dialogue puzzles work considerably better, because that's where your character interaction is, and because they offer the widest possible spectrum of outcomes. Not only does this let them feel more natural, but it also makes them feel more impactful, because of the way your choices develop the results. The time-rewind puzzles don't do as much to connect me with the world of the game, but they accomplish something different: I feel awesome, because I get to play with a power like that. They also push me towards a specific way of interacting with the world--I start to think of it as something that can be manipulated as I see fit, which underscores a significant but subtle part of Max's emerging character.

The puzzles of this game are crucial to building up the connection that you make with the game, and ultimately they do work, even if some of them are clumsy. They're the setup to the intense emotional payoff of Life is Strange, and if they had fallen flat, the game wouldn't have worked. When you want to see what makes a game work, start with its primary activity, the thing that the players engage the most. While background information, descriptive text, cinematic clips, and even voice-acting can help you enter into a game's world, it's the primary activity that truly pulls the player in. Build that right, and the rest will follow in the game.